The role of a strategic account manager is probably one of the most difficult to master – if regular sellers are amateur cyclists, then strategic account managers tend to be akin to seasoned pros on the Tour de France.
And, truth is, there are probably as many styles as there are individual account managers.
Some sell primarily based on technical expertise, whilst others build strong, deep relationships across business lines and verticals. Some are excellent organisers, able to marshall resources (time, money and focus) from their clients seemingly at will. Others are great at building internal relationships, able to pull together scarce talent for their projects.
But underlying all the differences is clear commonality : there is an underlying set of competencies that account managers and teams should have. Different individuals will have different accents or levels of mastery, but when brought together in a team they should be able to at least perform at an adequate level across all of these.
Think of these skills as complementary within an account team: they can (and should) be performed by different members within an account team. Nobody is perfect, and nobody will be able to perform all of them at the very highest levels as an individual.
In particular, there are 6 core skills required from account managers (or account teams) who want to be successful at penetrating, managing, growing and protecting their strategic accounts.
#1. The Results Driver
Think of the results driver as the « business owner », or the entrepreneur. His (her) role is to ensure that progress is being made in terms of building share of wallet, revenue and repeat sales within the account. They tend to be driven, motivated and have an inherent desire to grow the account for a clear business purpose.
They tend to think, converse and measure progress in business terms : revenue growth, profit, satisfaction, …
In RAIN Group’s research on « Top Performance in Strategic Account Management », we found that about ¾ of Top Performers have Strategic Account Managers (SAMs) who fit this profile – versus less than ½ of the Rest.
That’s a big gap.
#2. The Project Manager
If the Results Driver focuses on driving (business) results and KPIs, then the Project Manager is all about Getting Things Done. Their unique contribution is to organise the plan, the people, the resources, time and progress – essentially making sure that what needs to get done, actually gets done.
Project managers will be the ones creating compelling account plans, holding everyone accountable for progress, ensuring execution and tracking how well things are moving forward.
Where this may not be the sexiest of roles, it’s essential.
RAIN Group’s research has shown that this is the competency that most separates Top Performers from The Rest. Because strategy without execution is … well, wishful thinking.
#3. The Relationship Lead
If there’s a role that’s most commonly associated with the archetypical SAM, it’s this one : the relationship lead is the player who’s deeply embedded within the account, creating, strengthening and protecting the relationship.
Their primary role is to gain access to executive-level decision makers, generate meetings and develop the kinds of relationships that create opportunities over the short and long term.
Even though this is a relationship that’s commonly played across most organisations, Top Performers stand out due to their ability to master specific aspects of this role – for example, gaining access and selling to senior executives.
#4. The Collaborator
If the Relationship Lead’s role is to build relationships on the client side, then the Collaborator’s role is to do the same on the inside. After all, we often hear sellers lament about « we could do so much more business, if only the organisation was willing to play ball. »
Marshalling internal resources, when required and as needed, is a key aspect of successfully growing strategic accounts – and protecting them. Lack of collaboration and collaboration is the #1 cause of failure – but the right person can overcome internal hurdles, challenges and « red tape » and get things done.
#5. The Technical Expert
Many of our clients are in highly technical business – which we don’t just see as « engineering » industries. Many industries, from accounting to legal services and ball bearings (just to give an example) have a highly technical component to them.
Being able to field questions from knowledgeable experts on the client side, answer them and answer them correctly is a key requirement. This is what the Technical Expert does.
But it’s not going to win you the sale. Think of this competency as one that « can’t help you win, but certainly can make you lose ».
#6. The Innovator
The innovator (aka the « Visionary ») sees ways of adding value to the client in ways that others don’t. Unlike the Results Driver, they don’t see these primarily from a perspective of monetary or financial gain. They are genuinely excited by the opportunities that their particular product, service or offering has to improve clients’ businesses and lives.
Especially executive-level buyers, who often have their own vision for their organisation, respond well to interacting with Innovators. They tend to be kindred spirits, seekers of the elusive « better world of tomorrow. »
Importantly, Innovators also often play an internal evangelist role, inspiring others to dedicate themselves to the cause, and securing internal resources. As such, they can be an important part of the overall team (and account’s) success.
In the research on « Top Performance in Strategic Account Management », RAIN Group came to an interesting conclusion. When we compared the competencies most commonly played across all organisations (« what everyone does ») with the competencies most separating Top Performers from the rest (« what Top Performers do »), we found the ranking to be … completely upside down.
In other words, the competencies that most separate Top Performers from The Rest were (in order of importance) the Project Manager, Innovator and Results Driver.
Think of it this way : you’ll need Technical Experts, Relationship Leads and Collaborators to gain a seat the table – but you’ll need Project Managers, Innovators and Results Drivers to win.